By Zachary Stieber
A man who regularly uses an illegal drug can still own guns, according to an Aug. 9 federal court ruling.
Patrick Daniels Jr. of Mississippi was convicted in 2022 of violating a federal law that bars people from possessing a gun if they use a controlled substance, or an illegal drug.
But the law clashes with new U.S. Supreme Court precedent, which has been upending laws across the country, lawyers for Mr. Daniels argued in an appeal. They said the clash means Mr. Daniels was unconstitutionally deprived of his rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.
“Our history and tradition may support some limits on an intoxicated person’s right to carry a weapon, but it does not justify disarming a sober citizen based exclusively on his past drug usage,” an appeals court panel concluded. “Nor do more generalized traditions of disarming dangerous persons support this restriction on nonviolent drug users.”
They overturned the conviction and dismissed the charge.
A lawyer for Mr. Daniels did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which argued against the conviction being reversed, did not return an inquiry.
In the 2022 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, a majority of Supreme Court justices found that a New York system that made it difficult for people to obtain concealed carry permits violated the Constitution.
The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
“Because the State of New York issues public-carry licenses only when an applicant demonstrates a special need for self-defense, we conclude that the State’s licensing regime violates the Constitution,” Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed under President George H. W. Bush, wrote for the majority.
Justices said that “when the Second Amendment’s plain text covers an individual’s conduct, the Constitution presumptively protects that conduct.” To advance beyond that presumption, government officials implementing or defending a law, new or not, would need to prove that the regulation was “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Justice Thomas added.
Case in Mississippi
Mr. Daniels was pulled after in the afternoon of April 25, 2022, because there was no license tag displayed on his pickup truck. He gave officers a suspended driver’s license. They smelled marijuana and found partially burned marijuana cigarettes and two guns. Marijuana is illegal under federal law.
Mr. Daniels waived his rights, including the right to remain silent, and told officers that he used marijuana about 14 days out of each month. He also said he did not know that it was illegal for a person who uses marijuana to own a gun. The law in question is 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3).
While that is the law, lawyers for Mr. Daniels said that Supreme Court precedent, including the Bruen ruling, means the law violates the Constitution.
“The government cannot prove that 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) is lawful restriction on gun ownership based on text, history, and tradition,” they said in a filing. “18 U.S.C. §922(g)(3) is therefore unconstitutional.”
A district court ruled against Mr. Daniels, finding “some doubt” that the law in question was covered by the Second Amendment. That position was supported by the Supreme Court finding in a 2008 ruling, District of Columbia v. Heller, that the amendment confers the right to “ordinary, law-abiding, responsible citizens concerned with self-defense.” The court said the law was constitutional.
Mr. Daniels was sentenced to 46 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and a $2,000 fine.
Taking Case to Appeals Court
The district court ruling was erroneous, lawyers for Mr. Daniels told the appeals court. Under Bruen, Mr. Daniels is one of “the people” granted Second Amendment rights, they said.
The Department of Justice said in response that even Bruen described Second Amendment rights as belonging to “law-abiding, responsible” citizens, while in Heller the court said that its ruling should not be taken “to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.” The law is also constitutional because the nation has a historical tradition of preventing gun possession by people who “were not law-abiding and trustworthy,” lawyers said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit panel sided with Mr. Daniels, finding that the “law-abiding” references only referred to “the mentally ill” and “felons,” not people accused of crimes.
That means the government must prove the law is supported by the nation’s history of gun control. Restrictions on alcohol, the most widely used drug at the time of the Second Amendment’s adoption, were a close comparator. And the government identified no laws that barred gun possession by users of alcohol or other drugs that were in place when the Second Amendment was adopted. It offered two examples of restrictions, one in Virginia that barred shooting guns while drinking and one in New York that barred firing guns while intoxicated.
“Beyond that duet of colonial regulations—separated by over a century—the government identifies no Founding-era law or practice of disarming ordinary citizens for drunkenness, even if that intoxication was routine,” the panel said.
While several states passed similar laws after the amendment was adopted, such a small number doesn’t support a tradition, the panel said.
“In short, neither the restrictions on the mentally ill nor the regulatory tradition surrounding intoxication can justify Daniels’s conviction,” the ruling stated. “Perhaps the government could show that the drugs Daniels used were so powerful that anyone who uses them is permanently impaired in a way that is comparable to ongoing mental illness. Or the government could demonstrate that Daniels’s drug use was so regular and so heavy that he was continually impaired. Here, it has shown evidence of neither.”
The panel consisted of U.S. Circuit Judges Jerry Smith, appointed under President Ronald Reagan; Stephen Higginson, appointed under President Barack Obama; and Willett, appointed under President Donald Trump.
The appeals court oversees district courts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
Matthew Vadum contributed to this report.